Consumers are increasingly comfortable with online bill paying. So it's no surprise that Uncle Sam also wants to cash in on electronic money moving.
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Leading the way is the federal agency that has the most direct contact with working Americans: the Internal Revenue Service. Last year, almost 95 million taxpayers filed electronically, many because they were due refunds that were processed more quickly because their tax data were sent online.
Now the IRS is working to convince taxpayers that they, too, should go the electronic route when it comes to paying up. The agency has entered into partnerships with the private sector, including the banking industry, tax software developers and credit card processors, to make tax e-payments more appealing.
Here are the ways you can electronically move your money into the U.S. Treasury.
Electronic funds withdrawal
Individuals who file via computer, either on their own or with the help of a paid preparer, can use electronic funds withdrawal, or EFW. This basically is the reverse of the direct deposit that the IRS recommends for those getting refunds.
When you get to the end of your computer tax-filing chores and find you owe, EFW will be one of your payment choices. Have your checkbook handy -- not to write a check, but to enter some account numbers that the IRS wants. You'll be asked for your personal account number, what type of account it is (savings or checking), and the financial institution's routing number.
If you don't know which set of numerals is the routing number, check with your bank before you e-file -- especially if you're planning to file (and pay) late on the April deadline day. At 11:50 p.m., there won't be anyone at the bank branch to answer your call for help.
In most instances, electronic funds withdrawal is free. But when you call about the routing number, it wouldn't hurt to confirm that your bank or credit union does indeed allow such transfers at no cost.
One nice thing about EFW is that you can decide exactly when your tax payment comes out of your bank account by scheduling the payment -- as long as it's by the April due date. That means you can get the filing paperwork out of the way early and hold on to your cash until the last minute.
Credit card payments
Taxpayers can, of course, still tell Uncle Sam to "charge it." And debit cards are part of the mix.
Official Payments and Link2Gov remain the two IRS-approved plastic processors. Both companies accept payments from electronic as well as paper filers, either via phone or the Internet, in Spanish as well as English.
American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa are accepted for charged payments. If you want to avoid potentially costly interest charges, the payment processors also accept some debit or check card payments.
Although the companies are now accepting debit as well as credit cards, not all cards are accepted for all payment types. The cards that are accepted will be identified when you make your payment.
Also keep in mind that this electronic payment method will cost you more than just your tax bill. Each company has its own fee schedule, with fees starting at 2.35 percent of your tax bill.
And if you don't pay off your credit card in full, you'll start racking up interest charges on your account.
Your tax payment and the convenience fee usually will appear separately on your card statement. If you itemize, note the fee amount. The IRS now allows you to count that as a miscellaneous deduction, so you can add this payment to those expenses when you file your 2010 return next year.
Electronic Federal Tax Payment System
You can avoid credit card vendor fees by using the federal Electronic Federal Payment System, known as EFTPS. Businesses have been using EFTPS for years to directly transfer various taxes to the IRS. Now the agency is stepping up efforts to get individual taxpayers to use the system.
EFTPS is a free service and is available year-round. Individual taxpayers can make use of EFTPS to pay taxes associated with more than two dozen tax forms, including the family of 1040 forms (estimated and amended returns, too).
You must, however, enroll and get a personal identification number and password before you can use the service. It's a two-step process that involves a confirmation sent through the postal service, so don't wait until the last minute if this e-payment option appeals to you. And, again, check with your bank to see if it charges a transfer fee.
As with electronic funds transfers, EFTPS users can make payments 24 hours a day, seven days a week and schedule payments in advance. The online system also let taxpayers review their last 16 months of tax-payment history and search, print or download the data by date, tax type, amount, tax form and other factors.
In addition to paying an annual tax bill, filers who pay quarterly estimated taxes also can use these e-payment methods.
For more information on electronic tax options, check out the Bankrate feature "The many ways to electronically file your return" on ways you can e-file and "Getting the most from tax software" on selecting tax software with which you can electronically file your return and pay any tax due.
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